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Evolution: Darwin versus Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace [Pic: Natural History Museum]
Alfred Russel Wallace developed a similar theory to Charles Darwin

The life and works of the scientist who discovered evolution through natural selection at the same time as Darwin, are being celebrated in Cambridge.

An exhibition will bring together Alfred Russel Wallace's surviving collections from the 19th century.

Dr John van Wyhe, a Darwin expert at the University of Cambridge, calls Wallace "a fantastic scientist".

A R Wallace: The Forgotten Evolutionist is at Cambridge University Museum of Zoology until 8 February 2010.

Nature or nurture

A self-educated scientist, the work of Alfred Wallace, and his own discovery of natural selection, have been largely overshadowed by his contemporary, Charles Darwin.

Originally trained as a surveyor, Wallace's interest in science led him, in 1848, to leave England for Amazonian South America to begin a natural history collecting expedition, that took him to the Malay Archipelago.

I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth
Alfred Russel Wallace, 1861

It was the plants and animals encountered in this area that helped to clarify Wallace's thoughts on evolution and natural selection.

Dr John van Wyhe, based at the University of Cambridge, and author of Darwin Online, maintains that Wallace is just as deserving as being the discoverer and author of that theory.

He explained to BBC Radio Cambridgeshire: "On what is now known as 'Wallace's Line', he discovered that on one side of a strait you'd get some creatures that simply weren't present on the other side.

Dr John van Wyhe
Dr John van Wyhe is planning to create a Wallace Online website

"The environments seemed pretty much the same - same trees, same jungle... it was puzzles like these that led him to conclude that evolution had happened."

The theory

Both Wallace and Darwin had been working independently on their evolutionary theories for a number of years when Wallace wrote to Darwin in 1858 - from Indonesia, where he was working in the field - detailing his own theory.

This was a year before On the Origin of Species was published.

In August 1858, Darwin and Wallace jointly published the theory of evolution in a paper, which, although lauded by fellow scientists, did not have the impact of Darwin's Origin of Species which was published a year later.

"During their lifetimes Darwin was more famous than Wallace because Darwin is the one who published the Origin of the Species," explained van Wyhe. "It was his book and all of its evidence that convinced the scientific community that evolution was true."

Van Wyhe also claims that it was Wallace who prompted Darwin to publish the book.

Ground Zero

"Wallace was a fantastic scientist. He was actually in South East Asia - what is now Malaysia and Indonesia - when he discovered evolution by natural selection on the spot.

"Everyone thinks Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands and discovered finches and their beaks," he continued. "That's not true; he didn't discover evolution out there. He did that back in London in a dusty study, thinking back over his experiences, and then he came up with the idea. But Wallace was actually in the field, in the jungle.

Feathers from a bird of paradise, collected by Wallace

"South East Asia, where Wallace was, really is 'evolution Ground Zero' because it was discovered there."

Wallace continued with his field-work, collecting scientific samples and publishing over 20 books and hundreds of papers.

While he certainly wasn't overlooked during his lifetime - receiving the Order of Merit, the highest civilian honour in Great Britain - after his death the focus was very much more on Darwin and his Origin of Species.

Forgotten Evolutionist

The exhibition at the University Museum of Zoology - A R Wallace: The Forgotten Evolutionist - seeks to redress the balance, by exploring Wallace's life, travels and ideas through images of some of the eight tons of specimens and indigenous artifacts that he amassed.

The culmination of 30 months of work by artist Fred Langford Evans, working with Dr George Beccaloni - a Wallace expert from the Natural History Museum - the exhibition will promote Wallace's contribution to the theories of natural selection and evolution.

The free exhibition runs until 8 February 2010 and you can find full details on the Museum of Zoology website.

Wallace's words

In a letter dated 1861, Wallace wrote: "I think I have fairly heard and fairly weighed the evidence on both sides, and I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths...

"I can see much to admire in all religions... But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth."

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